Talking to Dr. Andreas Bienert at the EVA [Electronic Media & Visual Arts] conference

We recently attended the 25th EVA [Electronic Media & Visual Arts] Conference in Berlin, the theme was: the bridges between material culture and virtual representation. This “Digital Twins” principle, applied to the Cultural and Heritage sector, is transforming our practices of how we curate, document and communicate.

You have a degree in “Art history, literature, and linguistics” from the Philipps-University Marburg and the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. How did you end up in developing the interest in digital and virtual tools as a medium for cultural interpretations?

In the 80’s I first worked as a student in the picture editing department of the Marburger Index, published by K.G. Saur Verlag. This was in conjunction with Prof. Dr Lutz Heusinger, a pioneer in digital humanities. I was immediately fascinated by new research options of the collaborative electronic documentation systems developed under his aegis. In addition to my own negligible application programming, I gained experience in dealing with large data repositories and in database design.

In 1989, you contributed to the development of the digital catalogue of the collection holdings of the Art Credit Basel-Stadt: what is a challenging memory of that process? In retrospective, how do you see the evolution made since that initial step from almost 30 years ago?

Leonore Sarasan’s far-sighted article “Why museum computer projects fail” from 1981, which is still highly readable today, was the great challenge to reflect on improved strategies. The collection of Kunstkredit Basel-Stadt with its congenial curator, Agathe Straumann, offered me the opportunity to put my previous experiences into practice. Fortunately, the development of ICT has progressed well since then, but as they say in England – there is always a devil behind the devil – Every problem solved leads us to new challenges. Contrary to the omnipotence promises of IT companies, the structures of Semantic Web are quite expandable. VR and IoT are at the very beginning of a development whose direction we may foresee from a technical point of view, but whose social and political implications we do not even begin to suspect.

How do you see the future role of electronic media storytelling in cultural institutions used to engage audiences?

At the risk of repeating our commonplaces over the years:

Audiences do not want information, but stories.

Which project has been a good mix of accessibility tools and electronic media which you have noticed in the past years?

The Digital Joseph Beuys Video Archive which we developed in 1998 at the National Gallery Berlin – Hamburger Bahnhof, and which we had to run down already in 2000 from copyright restrictions. Giving the audience the opportunity to have their questions answered by the artist himself was one of the most beautiful challenges concerning digital storytelling. Another very remarkable and firmly anchored project in my memory is still online: the electronic edition of a beautiful, decade-long and intimate correspondence of the architect Erich Mendelsohn and his wife Luise: Have a look and feel how history can become stories from their perspectives: http://ema.smb.museum/en/home

What has been the most interactive exhibit /experience you recall that blended well tangible and storytelling elements?

Exhibition: Stories for a more-than-human world, 5 Jul 2018 – 8 Jul 2018, Museum Kesselhaus, Berlin, Germany (with Bianca Kennedy and others).

We thank Dr. Bienert for the time and taking part to the organization of such an interesting conference… connecting digital and museum!
Take a look of some EVA live tweet moments here

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Ecsite: Outreach: new practises…

During this session, several participants presented their projects and how those have been developed in order to help fill the gap between the differences (groups, ages, situations, etc).

Participants:

Rachael InglisNathalie CapletTheodoros AnagnostopoulosLeticia GonzálezPeter Trevitt

https://www.ecsite.eu/annual-conference/programme/outreach-new-practices

The Cambridge Science Centre has made some studies after being present in several schools, following children, year after year to make a long-term impact on them. All different participants to this sessions presented portable exhibits and pop-up elements, insisting on the fact that if your audience doesn’t come to you, you as a museum/structure/institution need to go after the public!

Showing that through different experiences and especially by exploring science elements in a less structured way, the feedback is very positive and children want more!!

It is all about what happens out of the school and inside the school: during a yearly cycle, the fact that specialists come and repeat the experiences and/or the wording year after as the students grow up, helps evaluate the impact of the interventions on the:

14 primary schools

6 secondary schools

3 communities (a total of 2,119 students, ages: 9-13)…

A great way to analyze the limits and the possibilities of digital resources usage at home! Moreover, some of the unstaffed displays of hands-on exhibits – the whole all in all with a very positive feedback.

SciCo with Mind the Lab in Greece had a similar problematic: they wanted to target the “absolute general audience”; so what was the best solution to do this?

They decided to bring sciences into metro stations. They did 8 stations in Athen / 1 day / 10 stops in total. The leitmotiv was the following: Science takes the metro for the first time! In parallel, they went to a science festival.

Of course, they experienced reaching many more people at the same time during the festival, but by meeting people during their transportation and in special areas, even if it wasn’t the same quality-time, they think it’s a kind of teaser, to “give a first idea” and a “first sense of what science is”, what it can bring you. Then, send them something that is related to what they have experienced…

In the end, they created a set of guidelines, a concept to be used anywhere, and many cities are already interested.

The Natural Science Museum of Barcelona, which includes 5 different sites, also presented their « travelling museum » boxes. A concept created to show, stimulate, demonstrate, and engage thanks to an « Exhibit Cabinet ».

A very nice object with many possibilities to be used in different areas for various audiences.

Storytelling and telling stories in the museum

Perspectives from two female writers’ Ted talks

storytelling
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – photo via Flickr

There are talks and tips about pretty much any topic on Ted and precisely 18 carefully curated playlists on the theme of storytelling. At Wezitcamp, we dived into the “How to tell a story” playlist to find thoughtful advice that applies to museum professionals working – or wishing to work – with storytelling. From political considerations to engagement techniques, here’s a snippet of what two talented storytellers – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Elif Shafak – shared in their Ted talk.

Give your audience a chance to identify

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie starts with reminiscing her childhood and early teenage years as a Nigerian girl reading white English and American literature. She highlights our need to identify with the protagonists of a story and stresses “how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, especially as children.”She shares the moment in which she “realized that people like [her], girls with skin the color of chocolate whose kinky hair could not form ponytails could also exist in literature.”During our own workshop at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the question of identity and the need to recognize oneself (or to recognize one’s story) in the museum’s collections came up many times. It is sometimes very difficult – if not outright impossible – for some audiences to identify with stories being told in the cultural institution they visit. Based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s argument, this might be due to museum’s tendency to present single stories.

 

Tell many different stories

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains that we are too often presented with a single story and find ourselves complicit in accepting this single story as a truth. She describes the single story of the African continent as seen and depicted in the West: “beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind white foreigner.” But what about all the other stories of Africa, she asks. In her own Ted talk, writer Elif Shafak shares a similar experience based on her years at an international school in Madrid. As the only Turk in her class, she became – like many other foreign classmates of hers – what she calls the “representative foreigner.” Each child, she explains, was seen “not as an individual on his own, but as a representative of something larger,” of his/her own country and all the stories and stereotypes that are attached to it. We sometimes find a similar phenomenon in some History museums where certain witnesses of historical events become genuine “collective individuals,” capable of representing, by metonymy, an entire social group.  Stereotypes are, for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the main consequence of single stories. “And the problem with stereotypes,” she adds, “is not that they are untrue, but that they are uncomplete.”

How can museums avoid telling single stories? During our transmedia storytelling workshops, many participants referenced collaborative programs including storytelling, in which museums would invite locals to share their own experience of an event, their own perceptions of an artwork, and so on. We discussed Portland Art Museum’s “Object Stories” and other initiatives building cooperation, trust and a sense of agency for museum visitors and non-visitors. The way a museum may editorialize personal stories is also central to this issue. There is a difference between a museum that limits itself to giving voice to personal stories, and one that reacts to this story, highlights it through a thorough work of editorialization, curation and interpretation.

 

Power relations

Storytelling is inherently linked to power and power relations. “How and when [stories] are told, who tells them, how many stories are told are really dependent on power,” says Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “Power,” she adds, “is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definite story of that person.” On the same topic, Elif Shafak warns her audience “We should see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed.” Recently, various museum professionals have argued against the idea that museums should – or even could – be neutral. Sharing thoughts, experiences and ideas with the hashtag #museumsarenotneutral, they are exploring museum’s “sensitivity to political decisions, censorship and the financial economy,” as Anabel Roque Rodriguez argued in an article published on Art Museum Teaching. Telling stories – or storytelling – in museums is hardly neutral, and maybe it should not be. In a previous article, we mentioned how emotions and active engagement affect our skills related to learning. Would museums be more effective educators if they took a stance and presented audiences with personal narratives rather than neutral labels? The debate remains open. In the meantime, many History museums such as Holocaust memorial museums and museums dedicated to Resistance movements have chosen to give witnesses of historical events a significant role within exhibitions and educational content.

 

Hearing storytellers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Elif Shafak reflect on the impact and consequences of their art is a great source of inspiration for museum workers practicing storytelling. If you have other Ted talks, testimonies and tips that have helped you reflect on how to approach storytelling in your institution, please feel free to share them!

Education and digital practices at the museum

What we learnt at Communicating the Museum this year

Last week, Wezitcamp attended the Communicating the Museum (CTM) conference in Paris. This edition focused on the power of education and was filled with thought-provoking and inspiring talks. It would be impossible to dissect them all so we chose to focus on what CTM taught us about digital practices for education within museums.

Communicating the Museum
David Sander at Communicating the Museum

Design experiences with emotions

In his opening speech to the conference – The Emotional Brain and Learning David Sander highlighted the influence of our emotions on our learning processes. He explained that our emotions affect all the cognition skills related to learning: perception, attention, memory, and decision-making. He illustrated this argument by a simple question: what were you doing on September 11th?

Although we have no trouble remembering what we were doing on this specific emotionally-charged day, it is much harder – if not impossible – to state with precision how we spent the previous or the following day. What does this have to do with digital practices? When designing digital experiences with an educational component, museums (and digital agencies) should consider if and how they can elicit an emotion within their audience. This implies making all the possible efforts to really know our audience, which brings us to our second point.

Be relevant …and appealing

“Know your people” was the first key learning Sharna Jackson shared during her workshop Doing it for the kids – digital content. To elicit emotions, we must know what our audience’s motivations are, where they come from, what they do, what they watch, how they express themselves and so on. To create compelling experiences, we must research their everyday practices. Still in his opening talk, Sander explained that to appear interesting to us, an object – a painting at the museum for instance – should be novel and complex but understandable at the same time. This echoes with Jackson’s advice to her workshop participants: “always design an age above”. She explained that kids don’t like to engage in activities that position them as “kids”. If on the contrary they are invited to take part in an activity just above their level, they feel like they are being included by older kids, or even by grown-ups.

 

Communicating the Museum
Materials from Sharna Jackson’s workshop

 

Achieving balance between relevance and appeal is a tough exercise. In his talk, Taking art out of the frame and into our lives, Erlend Hoyersten alluded to this as he claimed that “many university museums are under a lot of stress because they are not appealing although they have integrity.” When coming up with new digital experiences, it seems that mixing an appealing and familiar design interface with relevant content that rings true to your museum’s mission is the key. To this point, Pascal Hufschmid (Diplomacy and art matter) claimed that “museums are not places, they are points of view”; so make sure your point of view is reflected into all the layers of your digital tools.

Make museums fun

“If all schools should be art schools, museums should be like a playground” claimed Will Gompertz during his talk. There are certainly ways in which digital tools can help museums achieve this goal. Having fun sparks off emotions which, as we have seen, is a good first point when it comes to learning; but having fun also often involves moving around, which is another excellent thing for our brains. As several researchers have found, kids and adults tend to retain information better if they are allowed to move around. With this in mind, and with a will to develop experiences for “active participants, not passive receiver,” the ARoS museum (Erlend Hoyersten) partnered with Local Projects (Elvira Barriga) to develop a “mental fitness” center within the museum. In this space, visitors hop from one interactive installation to the next, making use of their whole body to play around works of the museum’s collection.

 

No need to reinvent the wheel

Yes, creating educational digital experiences and fun games is expensive. And no, you don’t need to build everything from scratch. As a matter of fact, you probably shouldn’t. That’s another invaluable tip from Sharna Jackson. For instance, when designing experiences for younger crowds, it is essential to form partnerships with existing structures that can give you a hand. Similarly, don’t create your own communities or platforms, go into existing ones such as Pop Jam, Pinterest or Youtube Kids. For games, Jackson also advised participants to resort to game-making platforms such as Minecraft and Roblox. On this point, you may want to read about Barry Joseph’s experiments with Minecraft for the museum.

The rise of a post-digital era

“Our partnership with Local project is not solely digital. We are in a post-digital society where people want to start learning with their hands again,” said Elend Hoyersten. The idea of a post-digital era is already establishing itself in various domains, including the cultural sector. This does not mean that all tour apps and tactile screens are bound to disappear, it just means that we should consider integrating a mix of digital and “real-life” activities when designing educational experiences. In her talk about the Wall Drawings exhibition at MacLyon, Muriel Jaby explained how her team took the usual Instagram behind-the-scenes campaign to a real-life public program. Inviting people to visit the exhibition as it was being mounted, the museum allowed them to see the street artists at work and to discover all the preparation and expertise that goes into creating an exhibition.

Think beyond the walls of your museum

In their talk Mobile Educational Gaming, Roei Amit and Sophie Radix from the Grand Palais pointed out that people didn’t need to be at the museum to access and play the games on the museum’s app. This is a crucial move towards transmedia experiences but also something that museums wishing to reach out beyond the confines of their own institutions should consider. To achieve its missions, does the museum necessarily need its visitors to walk through its doors? Amit and Radix also mentioned the creation of several free MOOCS in art history. The last one was followed by over 21,000 people. The Van Gogh Museum also created educational material for schools that can be accessed outside the museum via their “Van Gogh at primary schools” platform. Last but not least, Fekla Tolstoy presented the Anna Karenina marathon that was launched by the Tolstoy museum. This non-stop 36 hours online broadcast was livestreamed from 30 sites around the world, and involved 726 readers. It reached over 40% of the population in Russia and proved that even non-art museums have the potential to create compelling educational experiences using new technologies. Thinking beyond the walls of the museum is an urgent move to be made and it happens to be Communicating the Museum’s focus for their next conference taking place in LA this November. See you then !

Could pairing VR and storytelling help us keep collective memories alive?

How new technologies make us engaged witnesses of past and present conflicts

As a powerful tool for accurately recreating places and environments, virtual reality appears as a weapon of choice for historical exploration. In his talk at the last Museums and the Web conference, Michael Haley Goldman (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) showed how such new technologies could help retain and disseminate personal stories that are crucial to what is often termed “duty of remembrance” in Europe. In this article, we look at a few projects that successfully blended VR and storytelling to address narratives of past and present conflicts.

 

Stories from the past

“It really is about space, presence and first person narrative,” Michael Haley Goldman declared during the Museums and the Web conference as he reflected on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum use of VR technology. He mentions the “explosion” of VR experience on concentration camps. For instance, at the Bergen-Belsen Memorial in Germany, scientists from the  Synthetic Perceptive, Emotive and Cognitive Systems (SPECS) group at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona developed an augmented reality app recreating the fully-destroyed camp.

Although these new technologies prove extremely useful in capturing the attention of younger audiences, it seems that personal testimonies are much more powerful when it comes to transmitting knowledge and awareness regarding those conflicts. But what happens when all the people who have lived through those direful events are gone? In his talk, Goldman mentions the extensive efforts made to capture the testimonies of the last holocaust survivors. Several projects around the world have used hologram-like technologies to create immersive and interactive educational experiences based on survivors’ testimonies. For the Forever Project in the UK, ten of them were interviewed.

They answered over a thousand questions while being recorded with a 3D laser image technology. Those recordings were then projected within the museum. Visitors could ask questions to the image and thanks to an ingenious algorithm, the machine selected the most appropriate answer among the 1400 recorded, thus creating a dialogue-like interaction between visitors and survivors. The Forever Project followed shortly after the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie’s “New Dimensions in Testimony”. In this project,  a hologram-like representation of survivor Pinchas Gutter answered students’ questions within the setting of their classroom.

Those examples show that the use of VR technologies can be an excellent way to keep collective memory alive. It does come with a few challenges though. As Goldman pointed out during his presentation, such experiences raise a few questions in terms of user interface: how do you speak to a hologram? And then, in a few decades when these technologies will have become obsolete, how will we be able to preserve those testimonies?

 

Stories from the present

War and conflicts are not solely contained in the past. The numerous conflicts and population displacements happening today also call for documentation, conversation and representation. In his talk, Goldman cited a recent installation by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which allowed visitors to have a live conversation with Syrian refugees as part of the “Genocide: The Threat Continues” exhibition. Conversation is also at the root of the interactive VR experience “The Enemy” on show at the Institut du Monde Arabe until June 7th.

This multi-users VR installation takes participants into a 300-square meter virtual perimeter where they meet six different soldiers from three different conflicts: gang wars in Salvador, the Israeli-Palestinian and the DR Congo conflicts. There is no live interaction here, but the filmed sequences change according to the visitors’ information, and to their physical reaction during the experience. Last but not least, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – which we mentioned in our previous article – realized a VR storytelling experience for the Empowering Women exhibition in August 2016. The experience called Weaving a Better Future VR, collected stories from Maya women of Guatemala. They shared their experiences as victims of human rights violation, activists fighting for social justice, mothers and weavers.

Empathy helps us understand and retain information, but as Goldman pointed out during his talk, using empathy to teach traumatic subjects can be problematic. On the matter, he cites the work of Liora Gubkin and invites us to move from “empathetic understanding” to “engaged witnessing”. In an immersive experience, the way we tell stories and the amount of visual information we offer to the viewer are crucial. An experiment around the VR documentary Taro’s World, showed that “when the audience has limited visual information they will work twice as hard to make meaning out of every detail they see”. When dealing with themes of war, conflict and traumatic events, how much should we show? There is a risk of creating sensational or even voyeuristic experiences that move away from the educational and social goals of our cultural institutions. Once again, when it comes to VR experiences at the museum it seems that technology must not be an end in itself, but another tool to help institutions achieve their mission.

Please bring your own device to the museum

Museums and the Web

“To BYOD, or not to BYOD – that is the question!”

It was on a rather unusual format that this conversation took place during the 21st edition of Museums and the Web, held in Cleveland last April. Nancy Proctor moderated an Oxford-style debate opposing two pairs of professionals around the following motion: “This house holds that BYOD has failed museums.” For the motion were Micah Walters, formerly of Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and Frits Polman of Guide ID, while Scott Gillam of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Nancy Harmon of Encurate Mobile formed the opposition. The following article is a non-exhaustive summary of this debate.

BYOD has failed museums

YES

NO

Accessibility

+ Asking visitors to bring their own smartphone can be discriminating. Some people do not have the means to afford a smartphone, others are not comfortable with their use.

+ It is better to let visitors use their own device as they are already comfortable with their  personal smartphone. This reduces the risk of frustration associated with failing to understand a device lent by the museum. It also saves the museum valuable time and money on training docents and visitors to use the device.

+ Some visitors have specific needs in terms of accessibility (visually impaired visitors for example). Their personal device is perfectly adapted to their needs. Such a level of customization is difficult and expensive to set up for a museum.

From the crowd of attendees, Andrea Montiel de Shuman of the Detroit Institute of Arts puts forward an argument in favor of the opponents side. She explains that even if the museum agrees to lend a limited number of devices to visitors who do not own one – or train them to use the loaned devices – the experience remains nonetheless othering. Indeed, visitors must present themselves at the ticket office as “a person without a smartphone” or “a person who is not digitally literate”. To this remark, the defense replies that a properly designed experience would not be feel othering but, on the contrary, inclusive.

User Experience

+ A bespoke device created by the museum adds “extra-flavor”. The device can be customized according to the institution and exhibition – something that is impossible to do with visitors’ personal devices. A bespoke device allows for a seamless experience, which reflects the personality or brand of the museum.

+ We are already used to the apps and to the feel of our smartphones. Going to the museum should consist of a “surprising and delightful” experience. This can be achieved with a bespoke device created by the museum, much less with a device that the visitor uses daily.

+ The itinerary leading the visitor to the device can be an integral part of the exhibition and create new interactions between the visitor and the docent.

+ Can a museum really hope to create a better device than what Apple, Samsung or other brands have achieved? Probably not and this is why it is better to let the visitor bring their personal device.

+ If the museum is lending the device, it is necessary to rethink the entire user path and the logistics that accompany it.

The user experience, or more specifically the experience of a visit to the museum, is a crucial node of the debate. In his opening argument, Micah Walters states that this experience must be “delightful and surprising”. On the other hand, he adds, downloading an umpteenth mobile application is neither delightful nor surprising. The visit to the museum must be a unique experience, “like the first time you opened your iPhone 8 years ago; It was a truly delightful and surprising experience. ” To this statement, the opposition replies that in a cultural institution, it is the content that constitutes delight and surprise, not the interface we hold in our hands.

Marketing

+ Marketing needs are lesser than in the BYOD approach. Indeed, if the museum distributes the devices, each visitor gets one when buying their ticket, and the mobile application is pre-loaded on that device. There is no additional communication or marketing needed to advertise the app.

+ 56% of web traffic comes from smartphones. Personal devices are therefore a channel of choice to reach potential museum visitors.

+ Promoting a mobile application within the museum is an easy task. Beyond the traditional communication media (posters and flyers) the most effective method remains verbal announcement. When they buy a ticket, the visitor is informed that the museum has its own app(s). Volunteers and docents also participate in this communication effort.

What do you think of this debate? Would you have pleaded in the defense or the opposition? Do not hesitate to comment with your own views and ideas.